Ten Things Readers Would Like Publishers to Know

I suspect most of us take publishers for granted. We may not even be aware of who published the book we are reading. For most of us, unless we are writers or are in the book trade, publishing is a “black box.” That doesn’t mean we don’t have opinions about publishing. That’s true of my reader friends on Facebook who recently shared what feedback they would give publishers. Here are ten of their suggestions:

  1. The biggest beef they shared was poor proof-reading. Some of the errors reflect the use of spell-check or autocorrect, sometimes resulting in a correctly spelled wrong word. If you were raised to pay attention to grammar, punctuation, and spelling, these kinds of errors are huge distractions. Also keep the convention of quotes around dialogue.
  2. Maps were a big deal for some reason. One person requested maps at the back easily folded out for reference at any time. Maps are always appreciated when there are geographic references and territory changes. Some of us like pictures as well.
  3. Covers are a big deal. People really don’t like it when you change graphic style in the middle of a series. Also, don’t make all the covers in a genre look alike.
  4. Romance covers came in for criticism for racy covers. This is particularly objectionable if you are not heterosexual.
  5. People like “soft” soft back covers that don’t crack.
  6. People do want options of both physical and e-books. Don’t release books in only one of these.
  7. Print size. Make it so that people don’t need magnifiers to read the page.
  8. One person asked for the abolition of endnotes–footnotes only. I understand. Flipping back and forth can be frustrating.
  9. Release books at the same time in different countries. It can be aggravating when friends in another country have a book months before you do.
  10. Finally, some people would love to see publishers open to new blood, to give a chance to new writers, whatever their age.

This last reminds me of what a challenge publishing is, sometimes because of the sheer number of manuscripts to evaluate and the challenge to calculate what books will do well, going through multiple printing, and which will go to the remainder sales. One person responded, “None. I believe it is hard enough to be a publisher without any additional advice and I would not like to see the end of this essential species.” There’s something to that. They take the risks, make the calls, and we get to read the finished products. We may not always like the books and have probably wondered how some made the cut. Then there are those wondrous books, sometimes from a new voice, that make you grateful that they took the risk.

Review: The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, Carl R. Trueman. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2020.

Summary: Traces the intellectual history of what Charles Taylor calls expressive individualism and Philip Rieff calls the psychological man that the author argues explains the modern understanding of self contributing to a revolution in human sexuality.

Carl R. Trueman offers in this work something of an intellectual tour de force. It is important to understand the audience for which this book is written. It is written for Christians who embrace classic orthodoxy who are trying to understand the rapid changes in society, moving from Defense of Marriage Acts to the Obergefell ruling granting gay and lesbian couples the right to marry to contemporary discussions normalizing transgender persons in society. These are changes that have occurred in the last few decades, but which reflect a movement of thought spanning centuries, going back at least to the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau.

Trueman derives his thinking from two key thinkers–Charles Taylor and Philip Rieff. Both trace a transformation in our understanding of the self, and of our understanding of culture. Both trace a movement from an understanding of self and culture rooted in a transcendent order, in which the idea was conforming and imitating this order in one’s ethic and the shape of society. Modernity has resulted in the shift from this idea to one in which the self is created and contemporary society is conceived as an anti-culture resisting an oppressive classic order. A particularly important concept for Rieff is that of deathworks which Rieff defines as “an all-out assault upon something vital to the established culture. Every deathwork represents an admiring final assault on the objects of its admiration: the sacred orders of which their arts are some expression in the repressive mode.”

The assault begins with Rousseau who sees evil not in the fallen self but a misshapen society. He then traces the rise of the modern self through Romantic writers like Wordsworth, Shelley, and Blake, all emphasizing an emotive intuition of reality. He explains the politicization of these impulses in the works of Nietzsche and Marx and the sexualization of the self by Freud and Wilhelm Reich, where sex moves from act to identity. Finally, Trueman arrives at the present day, the rise of the therapeutic self and the constructs of sexual and gender identity.

I’ve given an extremely truncated version of a long argument (400+ pages with postscript–although shorter than any of Charles Taylor’s books). The history of ideas and their implications offer a credible case for a number of contemporary phenomena. Yet I found it troubling, for all its logical coherence, for several reasons. One is that I could see someone who is a person of color or who identifies as LGBTQ who would say, “You have given the account of our liberation from repressive and oppressive ideas and rationale for our resistance to the powers who invoke them. What you consider a negative development, we consider a triumph–liberation from a repressive and abusive sexuality and racist, colonizing political structures.” And despite the “anti-historical” tendencies Trueman would attribute to these interlocutors, they might answer with historical record of their own. They would agree with Trueman’s basic account minus his criticisms and consider it a narrative of their liberation.

The second thing troubling to me is that, although Trueman disavows that his explanation is either lament or polemic, it comes off as polemical to someone accustomed to work in the public university setting. You will remember that I noted the importance of the audience for which he writes–classic orthodox Christians. While I identify with this group, I also am aware that this account would be received as polemical, and indeed offensive at points to the people with whom I engage. The use of the term “transgenderism” which Trueman considers the outcome of his genealogy of ideas, is not typically a term used by those who identify as transgender, but rather by those who oppose them. I sense, however, that Trueman’s intended audience would be nodding their heads in agreement. To that audience this would not be polemic, but simply a compelling explanation of what has occurred in a culture with which they are uneasy.

Part of the offense of “transgenderism” is that Trueman is writing adversarially and dispassionately about real people whose sense of gender and their assigned sex at birth are at variance. No matter how one construes the self, the lived experience is often deeply confusing and troubling, particularly for the children or adolescents facing this. Only once, in the last few pages, does Trueman mention compassion. Through the remainder, transgenderism is the “other,” a faceless, invidious movement that represents the ultimate expression of the modern self.

Finally, only in the last few pages, does Trueman gesture toward a Christian response. He emphasizes the importance of doctrinal instruction, including understanding the aesthetic logic used by the modern self, the importance of community and a recovery of both an understanding of natural law and a high view of the body. Some of this is similar to what Rod Dreher recommends in The Benedict Option. His recommendations in part reflect the conviction that expressive individualism has invaded the church, with which I would concur. But this feels like circling the wagons to me. I can’t help but think that a better approach would be to start by recognizing the failures of Christian belief and practice that led to the rise of the modern self–a low view of the body and human sexuality, the alliance of the church with oppressive political structures, the exchange Christendom for the faithfulness of Christ, and the justification of the subjugation of human beings that denied the imago dei in all persons. Then, the challenge is to offer a better account, rather than just critique, and models of community that live this account.

What Trueman offers in this survey of intellectual history is an understanding both of how we got to where we are and why we often speak past one another. We really are working from different understandings of the world, the self, and the ground of ultimate reality. Furthermore, a biblically grounded, theologically acute account of a Christian vision has been vitiated by this modern view of the self. I hope in the future this scholar will move beyond explanation and critique to retrieval and re-articulation of an account of Christian truth not merely for a Christian audience but for a public unsatisfied with the modern self. This, it seems to me is both the harder and more important work, for which, as Trueman rightly notes, this book is only prolegomenon.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

The Month In Reviews: February 2021

We had a lot of snowy days and cold nights this February. Time to read a lot of great books. A couple of novels on their way to becoming dystopian fiction classics. Another Louise Penny Gamache novel. A book on the science of life. A couple books edited by the same team on Christian scholarship. A history of civil rights efforts in the north and one on the distinctive contribution of the Black church’s reading of the Bible. A biography of “muckraker” Ida Tarbell and a study of Abraham’s Lincoln’s anti-slavery interpretation and implementation of the Constitution. Books on politics, ecology, and exile and the Bible. Other good theology and biblical studies. A memoir by the creator of Rubik’s cube and a collection of the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel. Here are summaries and links to all the reviews. Visit the full review for anything that looks interesting!

Christ and the Kingdoms of MenDavid C. Innes, foreword by Carl R. Trueman. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2020. Explores the civic and political responsibilities of Christians and the proper purposes of government. Review

The Handmaid’s TaleMargaret Atwood. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1986. One woman’s account of life as a “handmaid” in the dystopian society of the Republic of Gilead, an authoritarian religious society organized around the urgent problem of declining birthrates. Review

The Brutal Telling (Chief Inspector Gamache #5), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2009. The body of an unknown man is found in the bistro of Gabri and Olivier, and Olivier is the chief suspect! Review

Cubed: The Puzzle of Us All, Ernö Rubik. New York: Flatiron Books, 2020. A memoir that explores both the role of puzzles in our life, and the creation and afterlife of the eponymous cube that bears the author’s name. Review

Voices and Views on Paul: Exploring Scholarly TrendsBen Witherington III and Jason A. Myers. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. A discussion and analysis of recent Pauline scholarship focusing on E.P. Sanders, James D.G. Dunn, N.T. Wright, John Barclay, Stephen Chester, and Louis Martyn. Review

Reading While BlackEsau McCaulley. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. A study of biblical interpretation in the traditional Black church that emphasizes the conversation between the biblical text and the Black experience and how this sustains hope in the face of despair. Review

Sinless Flesh: A Critique of Karl Barth’s Fallen ChristRafael Nogueira Bello. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2020. Drawing upon the doctrines of inseparable operations, grace of union and habitual grace, and original sin, argues against the contention of Barth and Torrance that the Son of God assumed fallen human flesh in the Incarnation. Review

Life’s Edge: The Search for What It Means to Be AliveCarl Zimmer. New York: Dutton, (forthcoming) 3/9/2021. An exploration of how scientists attempt (and have failed) to define what life is and the quest to understand how life arose. Review

Public Intellectuals and the Common, Edited by Todd C. Ream, Jerry Pattengale, and Christopher J. Devers. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021. A collection of presentations defining, articulating the need for and practice of Christian public intellectual work that pursues the wider good. Review

Ecology and the BibleFrédéric Baudin. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2020. A study of the biblical material on ecology, and how it bears on our current crises. Review

Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the NorthThomas J. Sugrue. New York: Random House, 2009. A history of the fight for civil rights in the North from 1920 to roughly 2000, focusing on movements, leaders, issues, and their expression in northern cities. Review

Ida M. Tarbell: The Woman Who Challenged Big Business — And Won!Emily Arnold McCully. New York: Clarion Books, 2014. A biography for young adults highlighting Tarbell’s journalistic career including her series of articles and books taking on Standard Oil, her relationship with Sam McClure, her views on women’s suffrage, and her lifelong labor to support her family. Review

The State of the Evangelical MindEdited by Todd C. Ream, Jerry Pattengale, and Christopher J. Devers. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018. A collection of essays surveying the state of evangelical thought twenty five years after Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Review

The Road, Cormac McCarthy. New York: Vintage Books, 2007. A dystopian story of a father and son helping each other survive in a post-nuclear America, scavenging for food and avoiding murderous mobs. Review

Rebels and Exiles (Essential Studies in Biblical Theology), Matthew S. Harmon. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. A study of the theme of exile throughout the Bible, from the garden, to the warnings and reality of Israel’s exile, the return from exile accomplished by Christ, realized in part even while his people remain exiles awaiting the new creation. Review

Thunder in the Soul (Plough Spiritual Guides), Abraham Joshua Heschel. (Edited by Robert Erlwine). Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2020. A collection of the writings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel concerning the life of knowing and being known by God. Review

The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery ConstitutionJames Oakes. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2021. A historical account of how Abraham Lincoln, although not a traditional abolitionist, strongly supported and implemented the antislavery portions of the Constitution to pursue the end of slavery. Review

Best Book of the Month. If you have never read any Abraham Joshua Heschel, pick up a copy of Thunder in the Soul, a collection of the thought of Heschel. I found myself stopping to think and ponder after almost every sentence. Here’s one taste, as he writes about God: “His is the call, ours the paraphrase; His is the creation, ours a reflection. He is not an object to be comprehended, a thesis to be endorsed, neither the sum of all that is (facts) nor a digest of all that ought to be (ideals). He is the ultimate subject.”

Best Quote of the Month. Beside the above, I liked this statement about the role of puzzles in our lives”

“Puzzles bring out important qualities in each of us: concentration, curiosity, a sense of play, the eagerness to discover a solution. These are the versame qualities that form the bedrock for all human creativity. Puzzles are not just entertainment or devices for killing time. For us, as for our ancestors, they help point the way to our creative potential. If you are curious, you will find the puzzles around you. If you are determined, you will solve them.”

What I’m Reading. I have a couple mysteries going right now–the next Louise Penny for me, Bury Your Dead and Georges Simenon’s Maigret and the Old People. John Carreyrou’s account of the rise and fall of Theranos and its young executive Elizabeth Holmes, Bad Blood, is a riveting account of the pursuit of money and power when ethics become optional. Redeeming Power by Diane Langberg is an eloquent and theologically grounded study of power and sexual abuse in the church. Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is a tour de force of intellectual history showing the development that has transformed our idea of the self, and its implications for our life in society and our understanding of sexuality. I also have Bill Gates new book on climate change and the latest Kristen Hannah book on my TBR pile. Later this month I will be interviewing Gordon T. Smith about his book, Institutional Intelligence, so I will be reading that as well. I look forward to our continuing conversation about good books!

Go to “The Month in Reviews” on my blog to skim all my reviews going back to 2014 or use the “Search” box to see if I’ve reviewed something you are interested in.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Campbell

Ohio Militia at a steelworkers’ strike at East Youngstown in 1916.

In 1902 the Youngstown Iron, Steel, and Tube Company established mills on the north banks of the Mahoning in what was then East Youngstown. Immigrant workers flocked into the settlement on the hills above the plant. By 1915, workers were living in crowded conditions and because of World War I were working 12 hour shifts 6 days a week for 19.5 cents an hour, barely a living wage. In January of 1916, 16,000 Mahoning Valley steel workers went on strike. On January 7, company guards shot into a crowd of people, killing three. Strikers responded by breaking into an administration building and burned 100 blocks of businesses and residences, much of the town. The Ohio National Guard was called in (pictured above) to restore the peace.

Youngstown Sheet and Tube settled the strike by increasing wages to 22 cents an hour. They also engaged in a form of “welfare capitalism” that consisted of helping rebuild much of the town, including worker housing. They bought the Blackburn plat for $250,000 and built a “workingman’s colony” of rowhouses constructed of pre-fabricated concrete. The developments in East Youngstown were built particularly for immigrant and Black populations, segregated from each other. The units had electrical service and indoor plumbing and backyard gardens. There was also a  “community house,” gymnasium, and school with a public square, designed to create a community feel.

All these efforts were led by Youngstown Sheet and Tube’s president, James Anson Campbell. In 1926, as the city rebuilt and became more established, it renamed itself Campbell, recognizing James Anson Campbell’s singular role in establishing the city. These were boom years and the city reached its peak population of 14,673 in 1930. It went through some decline over the next twenty years, and then grew during the Baby Boom years to 13,406. As is well known in Youngstown history, the major blow came on Black Monday as Youngstown Sheet and Tube closed down the Campbell Works, with massive layoffs. That led to steeper population declines to an estimated population of 7,785 in 2019 (All population info from Wikipedia).

The city remains home to the descendants of immigrants with strong Greek, Italian, Slovak, and Black populations. It is also known as the “City of Churches” due to the number of churches in the community. My one friend from Campbell, Dan Yargo, is pastor of one of them, Christ Community Church.

Campbell is working to both preserve and rebuild. In 1982, the workers housing was declared a National Historic Site. Sadly, the units declined and some were razed. Of the original 248 units, 194 remain owned by 55 owners. For a time, Iron Soup Historic Preservation formed to preserve the remaining units and acquired 20 of them. The Facebook page for the organization states: “Iron Soup as an organization no longer exists, the homes are currently under the control of the founder of the original company and is working on mass acquisition of the complex and the formation of a new company that will aim at housing US Veterans.” Although this Vindicator article doesn’t mention it, it appears that Tim Sokoloff is the one leading this effort. He lives in one of the units, renovates and rents out other units to generate income, and says he “will continue his renovations until the city tells him to stop or until he ‘kicks the bucket.’ ”

CASTLO CIC is an effort to attract industries onto the land formerly occupied by Youngstown Sheet and Tube. Seventeen business currently operate on the site with room for more. For recreation, Roosevelt Park offers picnic pavilions, hiking trails and baseball, softball, soccer, and tennis facilities on 64 acres.

Campbell could be called the city Youngstown Sheet and Tube (and James Anson Campbell) built. Now it is not big industry or business, but many individuals and community groups, some the descendants of the immigrants who first moved there, who will build the Campbell of a new century.

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

Review: The Crooked Path to Abolition

The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution, James Oakes. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2021.

Summary: A historical account of how Abraham Lincoln, although not a traditional abolitionist, strongly supported and implemented the antislavery portions of the Constitution to pursue the end of slavery.

Abraham Lincoln was not an abolitionist in the traditional sense. He did not advocate immediate emancipation in the slave states. He did not advocate active resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act, but only for due process rights. He did not rail in his rhetoric against the vile evils of slavery. But Abraham Lincoln hated slavery and believed there were resources within the Constitution properly leveraged that would lead to its eventual end. How could this be so when the Constitution protected slavery in the states? Only states could abolish slavery, not the Federal government. Both Constitution and legislation allowed slave owners or their proxes to capture and return runaway slaves even where slavery was not legal. And there was that language of slaves being three-fifths of a person.

Actually those who believe in an antislavery Constitution might start there. Slaves are written of as “persons,” undermining the contention of slaves as being property. Beyond this, those who developed the idea of an antislavery Constitution drew on both the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble affirming the equality of persons. They focused on the due process rights protected under the Fifth Amendment to make it as hard as possible for slave owners to retrieve runaways, while not breaking the fugitive slave laws. They used the Federal power to regulate the territories to make these free rather than slave. The Constitution said Congress had no authority “to give legal existence to slavery in any territory of the United States.” They antislavery people were committed to no more compromises that would admit new slave states into the country.

Lincoln believed that slavery would eventually wither away of its own. Some proposed that slaves brought into free territory could sue for their freedom. The dynamic economy of the north would outstrip the south, particularly because it could not expand its economy, fenced about by free territories becoming states. Eventually Southern states would abolish slavery on their own, which only they could do, Lincoln believed, since the Constitution did not give this power to the Federal government.

James Oakes traces the development of this antislavery doctrine, particularly within the Republican party. With enough votes in the growing North, Lincoln was elected. While he assured the South that slavery would be upheld, the implementation of other aspects of the antislavery doctrine triggered secession. Oakes shows how this offered new avenues to antislavery effort: ending slavery in the District of Columbia, ending the slave trade and blocking slave shipping to southern ports, and most significantly, voiding Fugitive Slave laws for slave owners in rebel states, since they no longer were under the laws of the Union. Slaves who fled into Union lines would be considered “contraband” and emancipated. While this was not so for border states who remained in the Union, the Army was directed not to assist in the retrieval of any fugitive slaves, since they did not have the legal powers to properly adjudicate such matters. The owners were on their own, further contributing to abolition.

Oakes doesn’t portray Lincoln as an antiracist. He favored colonization of Blacks, believing Blacks and Whites could not live together. But he hated slavery with a singular focus. One senses a Lincoln both shrewd and resolute in availing himself of all the resources available in the Constitution to move the needle toward abolition and emancipation, even maneuvering conquered states to constitute themselves as free and to join in ratifying the Thirteenth Amendment.

What I continue to wonder about is whether Lincoln realized his approach would send the South over the edge, precipitating the Civil War? Or did the South adequately take on board Lincoln’s resolve to preserve the Union once attacked? I wonder, given the case Oakes make, whether there is an argument to suggest that the South played into Lincoln’s hand, accelerating the demise of slavery that may otherwise have taken another fifty to one hundred years. Did Lincoln fully understand the cards he was holding and play them to full advantage?

I’ve often commented about the writing of slavery into our Constitution. I don’t think we can dodge that terrible compromise. But Oakes offers another perspective, showing the side of the Constitution that assumes freedom and equality the norm and slavery an exception. He also shows the lawyerly genius of Lincoln to recognize and exploit that side to its full extreme. The great sadness of all this was the lives it cost, including in the end, Lincoln’s own.

Review: Thunder in the Soul

Thunder in the Soul (Plough Spiritual Guides), Abraham Joshua Heschel. (Edited by Robert Erlwine). Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2020.

Summary: A collection of the writings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel concerning the life of knowing and being known by God.

The Plough Spiritual Guides are a great little series collecting the thoughts of some of the great spiritual thinkers of the last century. This latest is no exception. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was truly one of the great spiritual figures of the twentieth century. He escaped to London from Poland trying to get family members visas before the coming Holocaust. Before he could succeed, they died. He went on as a Conservative Jewish leader whose life and works transcended his own faith community. I was in a seminar just the other day where his book The Sabbath was extensively referenced. He wrote towering works bringing spiritual insight to Jew and Christian, believer and skeptic alike: Man is Not Alone, Man’s Quest for God, God in Search of Man, and The Prophets. After the assault on Blacks at Selma in March 1965, he joined Dr. King in the march to Montgomery, earning himself a place on an FBI watchlist. He was close friends with Reinhold Niebuhr and delivered the eulogy at his funeral in 1971, following him in death a year later.

This little book collects excerpts of his writing that read as a seamless whole, a tribute to Robert Erlwine’s editing. These come under twelve headings:

  1. Every Moment Touches Eternity
  2. The Only Life Worth Living
  3. In the Presence of Mystery
  4. The Prophets Show us God Cares
  5. God Demands Justice
  6. Modernity Has Forfeited the Spirit
  7. Prayer is Being Known by God
  8. A Pattern for Living
  9. The Deed is Wiser than the Heart
  10. Something is Asked of Us
  11. Faith is an Act of the Spirit
  12. Not Our Vision of God but God’s Vision of Us

Reading the headings alone offers material for extended reflection. Often I like to select a quote or two from a book. This was a book where nearly every sentence could be a quote pull, and occasion to stop and think before one moves on. One of the big ideas that run through this selection is that we search for God only to discover that God seeks us. Heschel writes:

“When self-assertion is no more; when realizing that wonder is not our own achievement; that it is not by our own power alone that we are shuddered with radical amazement, it is not with our power anymore to assume the role of an examiner of a subject in search of an object, such as we are in search of a cause when perceiving thunder. Ultimate wonder is not the same as curiosity. Curiosity is the state of a mind in search of knowledge, while ultimate wonder is the state of knowledge in search of a mind; it is the thought of God in search of a soul.

This search of God for us is the source of our worth. Heschel observes:

“We must continue to ask: What is man that God should care for him? And we must continue to remember that it is precisely God’s care for man that constitutes the greatness of man.”

Another key idea is that of faith as faithfulness, a response in every moment in how we live our life to the reality of God. Faith is not centered around the doctrine or dogmas of prior generations, which he considers “spiritual plagiarism.” Faith moves beyond our own reason and wisdom. “In faith, we do not seek to decipher, to articulate in our own terms, but to rise above our own wisdom, to think of the world in terms of God, to live in accord with what is relevant to God.” The life of faith is shaped by the law and the prophets. “The good is not an abstract idea but a commandment, and the ultimate meaning of its fulfillment is in its being an answer to God.”

Finally, Heschel talks about the paradigm shift of knowing God. We do not so much think about God as think within God. He explains:

“His is the call, ours the paraphrase; His is the creation, ours a reflection. He is not an object to be comprehended, a thesis to be endorsed, neither the sum of all that is (facts) nor a digest of all that ought to be (ideals). He is the ultimate subject.”

Some speak of God as Ultimate Reality. Often this sounds like an abstraction, but what I think Heschel would say is that God is the most Real, the really Real, by whom all else is understood.

This is a taste of what you will find here. Strong stuff. J. B. Phillips wrote a book titled Your God is too Small. I think Heschel would agree and this little book is a gateway to his thought. What is troubling to me is how rarely I encounter writing like this coming out of Christian publishing houses or in Christian media. This deceptively little book is, as the Wardrobe in C.S. Lewis, much bigger on the inside than the outside. Read slowly and be filled.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Rebels and Exiles

Rebels and Exiles (Essential Studies in Biblical Theology), Matthew S. Harmon. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: A study of the theme of exile throughout the Bible, from the garden, to the warnings and reality of Israel’s exile, the return from exile accomplished by Christ, realized in part even while his people remain exiles awaiting the new creation.

I have to admit, I have really liked the volumes of the Essential Studies in Biblical Theology that I have read. Each surveys a key theme that may be traced through scripture, both its significance in historical context and for believers in the present. Each volume is biblically grounded, reflects current scholarship, and readable for the non-specialist. This volume is no exception as Matthew S. Harmon traces the theme of exile through scripture.

He begins with Adam and Eve in Genesis, yielding to the temptations of rebellion and idolatry. Harmon draws this conclusion explaining the significance of the exile from Eden:

The message could not be clearer: rebellion and idolatry result in exile–separation from the presence of God. As pure holiness, God cannot allow sinful humanity access to his garden sanctuary, so he drives the couple out. To ensure that they can never reenter the garden, God places cherubim at the entrance as angelic guardians in conjunction with a flaming sword that turned in every direction. God ensures that humanity can never again access the Tree of Life at the center of his garden sanctuary. Yes, they are still divine image bearers. But now they must live out this reality in exile, away from the presence of their Maker.

Matthew S. Harmon, p. 15.

Harmon then traces God’s plan to work through Abraham to bring an end to exile. But first his grandson Jacob and his twelve sons must spend 400 years away from the land in Egypt. God makes them a people and brings them into the land under Moses and Joshua, with warnings that if they forsake the law of the covenant, they will be forsaken in exile. They rebel and God keeps his promise, as first the northern kingdom is defeated by Assyria, and later the south goes into exile in Babylon. Repentance brings return in 538 BC, and yet exile continues as they live under foreign rulers. Full restoration occurs only when Jesus dies for their sins, rises to life and ascends to rule.

One of the highlights of this book for me was the study of the various letters that speak of God’s people as redeemed and yet exiles in the world, called to live as imitators of Christ and citizens of heaven while still in exile, a unique way to cast our already/not yet condition. The study concludes with the final end of exile in the new creation.

The concluding chapter draws seven implications of the biblical material on exile. We are enabled to understand:

  1. Who God is and his plan for this world.
  2. Who we are as human beings.
  3. What is wrong with this world.
  4. What God has done to fix this broken world through Jesus.
  5. That this world is not our true home.
  6. How to live as God’s people in this world.
  7. Where our true hope lies.

Particularly compelling is this idea of understanding why we have this sense of longing for we know not what or where. Carson McCullers writes, “We are homesick most for the places we have never known.” C.S. Lewis describes “desire for our own far off country . . . for something that has never actually appeared in our experience.” Longing is the proper response for exiles who are still far from home.

Harmon helps us read the narrative of scripture through the lens of exile, making sense of our condition and God’s big story. It is a story that addresses our deepest longings and the source where we find hope.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Road

The Road, Cormac McCarthy. New York: Vintage Books, 2007.

Summary: A dystopian story of a father and son helping each other survive in a post-nuclear America, scavenging for food and avoiding murderous mobs.

The man. The boy. The road. One’s life in backpacks and a grocery cart.

Using an old map to walk back roads to the South and warmth when there is no heat.

Evading murderous gangs who kill and eat their victims.

Searching every dwelling for any scrap of food. A fallout shelter unused stocked richly. Can’t stay long for the risk of being discovered.

A lone boy. He has someone, he can’t go with us. He’ll be OK. Really? Really.

Ash everywhere. Rains smell of ash. Snow is gray. A gray, sullen landscape under gray skies. Nothing alive.

Nights under tarps, shivering in each other’s grasp, trying to stay warm, yet hidden.

A cough. Worsening. Spitting up blood. Must protect the boy.

We carry the fire.

This is The Road. Not a happy story. One to give anyone who thinks a nuclear holocaust survivable. This strikes me a good rendition of what “survival” would be like.

It reveals the heart of darkness that emerges when the structures of civilization fail. Yet it also reveals the bond of a father and son, the eternal flame of hope, or will against all despair to live captured in the words, “we carry the fire.” It recognizes a goodness that will not die (“we are the good guys”) even if this means that you will only kill and not eat the enemy who threatens you. Yet it is a world where you are wary of any human beings, the few who remain. Are there any other “good guys?”

It makes one think of what we have seen during the pandemic, when a virus and a polarizing president have threatened the social fabric–violent mobs in the streets, and roving the Capitol. Plots to seize and kill health officials and governors and even vice presidents. Elevated gun violence. Car jackings. Neighbor fighting neighbor over the refusal to don a mask. What do we need to see that the fabric of society is more fragile than we imagined? The Road may not be so far off as we think.

Review: The State of the Evangelical Mind

The State of the Evangelical Mind, Edited by Todd C. Ream, Jerry Pattengale, and Christopher J. Devers. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.

Summary: A collection of essays surveying the state of evangelical thought twenty five years after Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.

In 1994, Mark Noll ignited something of a firestorm of conversation, particularly among evangelicals working in academic circles, when his book Scandal of the Evangelical Mind was published. It didn’t take much past the opening line to get the conversation started: “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” It was around this time that I joined what was then Graduate Student Ministry (later Graduate and Faculty Ministry) of InterVarsity, and we saw ourselves on the vanguard of trying to change this situation in our work with those preparing for academic careers. Mark Noll even spoke for a couple of our conferences, encouraging our efforts.

This book came out nearly twenty-five years later and serves as kind of a survey of the landscape, assessing where we’ve come–or not.

Mark Noll contributes an essay to this collection recounting both the fascinating history of the Reformed Journal and noting a number of more recent developments that give him cause for encouragement, noting evangelicals in many fields publishing at academic presses, the growth of Baylor as a Christian research university, Christian study centers on many campuses, and Christian professional organizations. Sadly, though, we’ve witnessed the passing both of the Reformed Journal and Books & Culture. Noll sees silver linings in these losses.

That’s less the case with Jo Anne Lyon’s essay. Lyon, who has an exemplary career in leadership of evangelical social action and justice organizations. She traces the history of evangelical social action from Wesley to the present, citing the historic Chicago Declaration of 1973 (on which I recently wrote). She remains hopeful but believes evangelicals need to recover their narrative of being on the forefront of efforts of justice, mercy, and love, a narrative co-opted by political alliances and nationalism.

David Mahan and Don Smedley’s two part essay contend for the place of campus ministries in the recovery of an evangelical mind, and, for Smedley, a sharp critique of Noll’s approach that criticizes Scottish Common Sense philosophy and apologetic approaches to evangelical intellectual engagement. Smedley prefers the apologetic approach of J. P. Moreland that affirms the very things Noll critiques as vital for evangelical engagement.

It is hard to discuss the Christian presence in higher education without reference to John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University. Timothy Larsen contributes the requisite paper discussing Newman’s relevance to the present day university, addressing the formation of persons and not just minds, Newman’s apologetic for a liberal education when career training is a focus, and the vital role theology plays within the university.

If theology is important, what then is the role of seminaries? Lauren Winner addresses these questions focusing on the cross-shaped formation of both pastors, and of those in the pew. Winner makes the proposal that in our activist-oriented churches, it sometimes may be a win if someone thinks differently about something after worship.

James. K. A. Smith is perhaps the most explicit of the contributors to address the parlous state of evangelical churches. He contends that the independence and unconnectedness of so many of these churches ought be addressed by an embrace of the catholic character of the church, a rediscovery of cardinal doctrines offering a far more bracing vision of life than our political illusions.

Mark Galli concludes this collection with the observation of the uniquely “Jesusy” character of evangelicalism. He argues that this is what drives the uniquely evangelical presence in places like the garbage dumps of Cairo, and contends for the need to re-embrace this quality. He also recounted his own formative years in InterVarsity inductive Bible studies, and how they taught him how to read, not only scripture but other works as well.

This was my own experience at an urban university. Similar training taught me to read carefully, to pay attention to the text, to question the text. As much as any other discipline, this taught me to think Christianly, not only about scripture but about anything I read, or heard. It raises questions for me as I think about this survey of the state of the evangelical mind. Mark Galli suggests we need to be more “Jesusy” and I would agree. The embrace of the one, holy, catholic church and her historic beliefs (catholic in the sense of universal, not specifically the Roman Church) is important. But the Bible is another aspects of Bebbington’s quadrilateral. There are naive and destructive readings of the Bible, to be sure. But the careful reading of scripture, tested by the faith once received, seems foundational to me for an evangelical mind, and it concerns me that both traditional and new forms of media have increasingly been substituted for lives saturated by careful reading and thought, first about scripture and then all things.

What both this collection and my own reflections suggest is that while there are bright spots and resources, there is much work to be done. While I remain a person of hope because I believe in a God who redeems and revives, I am saddened by what seem large swaths of Christians in America who are politically captive and convictionally compromised. This may be the work of a remnant, and yet one that must never fall into an enclaved remnant mentality. It may be that such work is not one of awakening a church that may be in large parts apostate but engaging a culture in search of it knows not what, and an academy struggling with the fragmentation of increasingly specialized knowledge and the multiplication of identities. This was the work of Christians in the Middle Ages that led to the rise of the universities. It may be our work in this time.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — St James Meeting House

Nyttend, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It was a joyous day. My friend from college had found love again after having lost his first wife to cancer. They decided to marry at the St. James Meeting House in Boardman Park. We had driven by many times but had never before set foot in this historic building. By modern standards, it is a spartan building with limited restroom facilities downstairs as well as a dressing area for bride and groom. Upstairs, the sanctuary has vintage hardwood floors, a two-level raised chancel with dark red boards, and white walls, white narrow pews, and woodwork. Above the chancel is a gorgeous stain glass window with a central section and two side sections. One of my memories of the wedding was of the afternoon sun shining through the glass onto my friends. As I said, it was a glorious day in a building that looked like it came from a New England town.

In a way it did.

In 1807, a few years after the initial settling of Boardman, the Parish of St. James was established. Henry Boardman, son of Elijah Boardman of Connecticut, after whom the township was named, donated land, money, and some of the materials for the building. St. James Episcopal Church was built in 1827 and 1828 and consecrated in 1829 by the first Episcopal bishop of the diocese of Ohio, Philander Chase. It was the first Episcopal parish and church in the Western Reserve. The belfry and steeple, which add so much to the building, were added in 1882. The stained glass windows were also added during this renovation.

The building was sited just south of the Boardman town center on the east side of Market Street. A moment’s thought will remind you that this is where Southern Park Mall (or what is left of it) is located along with various outbuildings (Chili’s Restaurant and Bar now occupies the site of the church). In 1970, the Edward J. DeBartolo Company developed the land behind the church into the mall. With the area around it being commercialized, the congregation built a new facility on Glenwood Avenue into which it moved in 1971. It looked like this venerable old building, then 144 years old was slated for demolition. The diocese deconsecrated the building. Briefly, there was talk of moving it to the Pioneer Village at the Canfield Fairgrounds, but that was too costly.

Then the Boardman Historical Society, under the leadership of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Masters and Mr. and Mrs. George Marks, started a drive to move the building to Boardman Park, just down the road. They overcame legal difficulties with the deed and raised $45,000 to move the building down Route 224 to the park. Now it is the central structure in a collection of historic buildings that include the Beardsley-Walter-Diehm House (circa 1828), the Oswald Detchon House (circa 1840), and the Schiller-Chuey Summer Kitchen. In 1979 the building was added to National Register of Historic Places. Supported by the Ohio Bicentennial Commission, The Longaberger Company, The Boardman Historical Society, and The Ohio Historical Society, an Ohio Historical Society marker was erected for the building in 2001.

These days, weddings are the primary events at what is now the St. James Meeting House. It is a popular wedding site, normally averaging 300 weddings a year. Prices are surprisingly reasonable, listed at the time of writing at $170 for Boardman residents and $254 for non-residents. The building can seat 125. This includes a two hour wedding and an hour rehearsal. Groups interested in touring this historic landmark may schedule a tour by calling the Park District office at 330-726-8107, Monday through Friday, from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. (subject to COVID restrictions).

The building costs about $9,000 a year to maintain, $7,000 of which is defrayed by wedding fees. In September of 2020, the building received a fresh coat of paint. This year, the building, considered the oldest existing church building on the Western Reserve will turn 193 years old. The year 2022 will mark 50 years on the Boardman Park site and 2028 its bicentennial. Obviously, Henry Boardman and the people of St. Mark’s built well and it is to the credit of the people of Boardman, Boardman Park and the Boardman Historical Society, that this piece of Youngstown area history has been preserved so well. One hopes it always will be.

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!